By Michelle Martin, PhD, MSW
Dear Pro-Life Folks,
I feel as though there is a misunderstanding. I keep reading posts online casting all Democrats as having one agenda and one agenda only, and that is to "kill unborn babies."
This accusation seemed to really peak during the Kavanaugh crisis, with many on the Right accusing those on the Left of using Dr. Christine Blasey Ford to achieve our one great hope: getting Kavanaugh out of the way so we could keep on killing babies.
Well, this has me very confused. Why? Because being pro-choice has absolutely nothing to do with being pro-abortion.
I know, I know. Your leaders—Republican politicians, pro-life organizations, your religious leaders—have been telling you something completely different for years. That we use abortion casually as birth control, that we abort babies in the 8th month, that we don't really care about life.
And our leaders have been telling us things about you as well; that you don't care about women, that your cause isn't really about the babies, that you don't really care about life.
So rather than posting angry memes, adding to the polarizing rhetoric, I thought I'd take my case directly to you.
This issue isn't about one side loving life and the other side hating it, although that's what many politicians would like each side to believe. Politicians on both sides get more votes when they make complex issues into simplistic zero-sum propositions. That way, they can make us into single issue voters and do whatever they want behind our backs.
The real issue in the "pro-life/pro-choice" debate is not whether one side loves life and the other doesn't. We love life, and that includes babies and yes, even fetuses, and I trust you do too. The real issue is what approach each side believes will have the greatest likelihood of reducing unintended pregnancies, and thus abortions.
You believe a criminal strategy will reduce abortions. We believe social programs that focus on prevention and addressing the underlying factors involved in unintended pregnancies, will be more successful.
Your approach focuses on a crisis response, and our approach focuses on prevention.
I know your politicians like to make you think of us here on the Left in very simplistic terms. I've seen the memes. But here's the truth. Most of us are just like you. But we strongly believe in the research on this issue.
We strongly believe that making abortion illegal will have absolutely no bearing on the number of abortions each year, other than to likely increase them, perhaps dramatically. In fact, all a criminal approach will do is bury the problem—make it go underground, and there is zero way for the federal government to police such an issue.
We believe the research that when abortion is legal, rates actually go down.
Here are four key issues related to the pro-life/pro-choice debate that I believe are relevant in finding middle ground and moving forward:
1. Sexual Health and Reproductive Education
Providing effective sexual health and reproductive education to all youth through the public education system, by experts in the field is vitally important. Not the fluffy stuff kids get in the 6th grade, but real, evidence-based education that teaches the facts.
I used to be a school social worker and I cannot begin to tell you the number of girls I worked with who had no idea whatsoever what ovulation was, let alone when they were most fertile. They also had no idea of the various birth control methods available, and they had no access, and often no one to buy it for them. And, a trip to Planned Parenthood—one of the few clinics left to provide free birth control, often meant walking through a parade of shouting people holding signs of bloody fetuses. Not an pleasant picture, is it?
Many of the girls I worked with had also been taught to be ashamed of sex, and of their sexuality, so they often didn't use birth control or ask their boyfriends to use a condom because that would involve openly admitting they were having sex, which they were taught was shameful.
So they pretended. They pretended that they weren't really going to have sex, so they didn't practice safe sex. And then when they got pregnant, they pretended that they weren't, leading to a pregnancy crisis several months down the road.
Do you now see now how a lack of sexual health and reproductive education (and a patriarchal society) can actually lead to increased unintended pregnancies and abortions?
My experiences are not unique. This type of naïveté is prevalent across the country. So let's get on the same page on this issue and agree to fully fund sexual health and reproductive education.
But what about abstinence-only programs, you ask? Well, the research on those programs is pretty clear. Not only are they ineffective in curbing unintended pregnancy, they actually result in more of them!
The United States has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy compared to other developed countries (about half of all pregnancies per year in the U.S. are unintended!). This is due in large part to very poor reproductive education. If we address sexual health and reproductive education effectively,
the need for abortion drops significantly.
Now, here's an example of how we can come together: we can use abstinence-only programs for younger adolescents, and comprehensive reproductive education for older adolescents. That's a win-win.
2. Free and Available Birth Control
I know, I know. I've heard it repeatedly. As soon as I mention the studies that found that unplanned pregnancies dropped significantly when women had access to free and easily available birth control, the argument shifts to "why should I pay for another women to have sex?" Really? Do you think this is really about you personally funding someone else's sexual activity?
If you stick with this argument (which is a very morally-infused one), then someone else could just as easily argue why they should have to pay for your mother's diabetes medication through the federally-funded Medicare program.
Also, do you want to save fetuses or do you want to debate morality? The reality is that pregnancy is caused by both men and women having sex, and if you don't want to support a strong public health program that makes birth control free and available when research shows that this can reduce unintended pregnancies significantly, then let's talk about making it legally mandatory for all men to wear condoms (yes, even married men), whenever they're having sex without the intention of procreation. I'm game if you are.
Despite Republicans consistently cutting reproductive education and public health programs every opportunity they have, many states have supported these types of programs anyway, and as a result abortion rates have plummeted over the last 25 years and are currently at an all-time low.
If I didn't know better, I might question what the real goal is among the rigid pro-life crowd -- reduced abortions or exercising control over women's sexual lives. Because come to think about it, I do find it a bit odd that there are all of these passionate pro-life male politicians, yet not a single one of them has introduced legislation mandating condom use.
Also, please don't blame the women seeking abortions. Most women are desperate and devastated. They aren't immoral or evil, or uncaring. They are experiencing a crisis. They're in domestic violence relationships, they're struggling with poverty, they're young, and some are struggling with mentally illness. They're trying to live and find some happiness in life, and yes they're having sex. And regardless of what you've heard, birth control is very expensive, and the more "natural" methods aren't reliable. This is why there is a birth control mandate included in the ACA.
So it makes no sense to me why Republicans fought the birth control mandate every step of the way, including allowing various companies to opt out of the mandate, if they were aware of the research studies that showed the link between increased availability and affordability of birth control (they'd have to be aware, right?).
It also makes no sense to me that Republicans continue to cut poverty alleviation and mental health programs every chance they get. Check out Trump's proposed budget for 2019. He's recommending complete cuts to almost every social service program currently available.
And, it's also ironic to me that the three states with the highest abortion rates are the deeply red states of Tennessee, Louisiana, and Texas. How do you explain this? Poverty, poor reproductive education programs, and restricted access to low-cost birth control, with minimal adherence to the ACA mandate.
3. Pro-Life/Pro-Choice Identity
The pro-choice/pro-life debate has become so polarized that it has now become solidly integrated into many of our identities. If we all get on the same page and shift the paradigm to prevention that would likely mean losing a big chunk of our identity, which is very difficult to do.
Who are you if you aren't pro-life? Who am I if I'm not pro-choice?
Not sure if being pro-life or pro-choice is a part of your identity? Take a moment and conduct a little exercise with me. Pretend as though you are introducing yourself to a group of people. As you describe yourself—your name, perhaps your career, your family status, your political affiliation, do you also add "pro-life" or "pro-choice" descriptors to the list? If so, then this orientation is a part of your personal identity.
Our identities do more than describe who we are and what's important to us. They also secure our membership in social groups, which make us feel more stable and secure. But there's a down side to group-fostered security. When our group memberships becomes too important to us, most of us will change our values and beliefs before we'll branch out on an individualistic limb and risk being kicked out of our groups.
Don't believe me? Have you ever heard about Asch's social conformity studies? Solomon Asch was a social psychologist, originally from Warsaw, Poland. His family migrated to the United States when he was only 13, before World War II, but Asch was very influenced by the travesties that occurred during that time. More specifically, he wondered how it was possible that so many "good" people followed Hitler.
Were all Nazis were just plain evil, or did people wanted so much to be a part of a group, that they sacrificed what they knew to be true, in order to fit in and not risk being socially ostracized? So he crafted an experiment that would examine the impact of social pressure on conformity, just to see how much pressure it would take to get someone to abandon their individual beliefs in order to maintain their membership in a group. Turns out, it doesn't take much.
In Asch's study, the experimenter showed a series of lines on a wall, and the subjects would select the line that was the longest. Super simple, right? Well, not really. Especially when you're the only one in the room who's the real subject, but you don't know it, and the entire group keeps picking the wrong line, leaving you all on your own, scratching your head.
Turns out each and every subject eventually succumbed to social pressure, and despite seeing the longer line very clearly, ended up going along with the crowd and picking the shorter one. It was really quite amazing (and scary), because no doubt the majority of the subjects argued vehemently that they were independent thinkers who were not influenced by their peers. But as it turned out, they weren't (independent thinkers) and they were (influenced). Check out the original study here (skip to 1.41 on the video).
So what's the relevance of Asch's conformity studies to our discussion on identity? Well, we now know that we all tend to cling pretty heartily to our identities that relate to group membership, so if we are pro-choice or pro-life and someone suggests a compromise, many of us will be hesitant to agree, especially if that means branching out on our own, and leaving the security of our group.
But while remaining firmly and uncompromisingly in our respective camps may feel good, it won't save babies. We all need to be very clear about that. So some of your people on the Right and some of my people on the Left are going to need to venture toward the middle, if we're ever going to get anything accomplished.
I guess this is where I ask you to ask yourself what your true motive is. Do you want to maintain the label of "pro-life" (and all the ideology that goes along with it) at all costs, even if that results in more abortions? Or do you want to take a step toward the middle, and be open to a different paradigm? I'll take a step if you do.
4. Resisting the Propaganda
Politicians and religious leaders are great at making emotional appeals. They show photos of fetuses, often fully formed, and tell stories about how these fully formed fetuses are aborted every year. These stories are gut-wrenching. They're terrible. Babies almost at full-term, aborted. But here's the thing, it's completely false.
There are only seven states that currently permit elective abortions after 22 months, and these account for only .17% of all abortions in the United States. Now, no one (that I know of) is saying that these .17% of fetuses don't matter. But the truth is that the majority of what politicians are calling "late term" abortions actually involve cases where a mother's life is in danger or there is some type of fetal anomaly, and the parent(s) must make a gut-wrenching decision, guided by their physicians.
Time limitations on abortions is absolutely something that should be worked toward. In fact, I hearken for a time when abortion is unnecessary because reproductive literacy for all people is high, education programs are effective, public health programs are strong, and women are empowered to make safe and wise choices for their bodies, along with their partners.
The Way Forward
We aren't as different as you think. You love life, we love life. You love fetuses, we love fetuses.
Here's where we're different. You want to criminalize abortions and we want prevent unintended pregnancies.
You can disagree with the research and keep pushing for a criminalization approach, framing those of us who believe in a social approach as "baby killers" who hate life, but just know that the number of abortions will not be reduced if Roe v. Wade is overturned. They'll increase. But you'll never know it because abortion rates will be impossible to monitor.
The way I see it we can continue to allow politicians to manipulate us by creating one-issue voters (on both sides), which will keep this issue polarized with no solutions in sight. Or, all reasonable people can come together and back the strategies that research shows will work.
Want to see an example? Check out Oregon's Youth Sexual Health Plan.
[A shorter version of this post is available on Facebook]
Dr. Michelle Martin is a social worker, policy specialist and Assistant Professor at California State University, Fullerton in the Department of Social Work, where she teaches social welfare policy, and researches dynamics related to immigrants, political asylum-seekers, refugees and other displaced populations.